Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

The Climate is Changing. How we Manage Water Must Change Too

By Dr. Liz Chamberlin, Director of Innovation, Point Blue Conservation Science

Water has long dominated California news cycles. This winter brought record breaking rainstorms with widespread flooding and devastating landslides – even while much of the state remains in moderate or severe drought. Then came news in January that the federal government might intervene in allocating water from the drier-every-year Colorado River, which supplies large amounts of water to California. And Californians are increasingly asking whether state leaders are doing enough to store rainfall in years when it finally falls in abundance.

Flooding amidst persistent drought is indicative of the future of the arid West under climate change. Add in agriculture, growing populations, wildlife, and safe drinking water (particularly for historically disadvantaged communities), and it’s apparent there is a mosaic of complex needs to consider. One thing is clear: how we manage water in the West over the next hundred years must look different than how we’ve managed it for the last hundred. Let’s follow the path of water from some of the highest points in the state–the crest of the Sierra Nevada–to some of the lowest–our beautiful coastline.

Swain Meadow, Sierra Nevada. credit: Garrett Costello, Symbiotic Restoration, June 2019

At the high points, winter precipitation in the Sierra historically built a robust snowpack that acted as a fantastic natural water storage mechanism. Now, with more winter storms coming in just a bit warmer, we often see a reduced snowpack and associated storage. Besides reservoirs, how else can we store this water for drier months? Nature provides an answer: mountain meadows, which function like on-demand water storage. Unfortunately, over 50% of mountain meadows are degraded, meaning they’ve lost the ability to store water as they should. Coalitions like the Sierra Meadows Partnership are collaborating to restore these valuable resources, with a goal of restoring and conserving 30,000 acres of mountain meadows by 2030.

At lower elevations, we also see opportunities to look to nature-based solutions through restoring floodplains along our creeks and rivers. Virtually all major rivers have been dammed and leveed, and over 95% of streamside riparian vegetation has been destroyed. However, extensive efforts to restore floodplains and riparian forests have successfully created valuable habitat for salmon, birds, and other wildlife, while storing as much carbon as any other forest in the world.

We see even more opportunities for nature-based solutions in the agricultural lands of California’s hugely productive Central Valley. One example is Bird Returns, a collaborative effort between NGOs, universities, producer groups, farmers, water districts, and state agencies. By incentivizing farmers to flood their fields at just the right time and adopt a few other simple practices, we can put water on the land where and when wildlife needs it the most. We can also benefit from technology with tools like WaterTracker that use satellite imagery to show water managers exactly where there is–and isn’t–water on the ground already.

Ridgway’s Rail, Corte Madera Marsh, San Francisco Bay, Dec 2020. Credit: Megan Elrod.

One of water’s last stops before it reaches the ocean is the network of wetlands that border coastal areas and inland waterways. In addition to providing critical wildlife habitat, healthy wetlands have the potential to store significant carbon while helping protect coastal communities from flooding by acting as a giant sponge that soaks up water from rising sea levels and storm surges. Unfortunately coastal wetlands have also been devastated. Once again, restoration of these critical resources offers hope for the future, through funding mechanisms like the Bay Area’s Measure AA and projects like Point Blue’s STRAW program, which empowers local students and community members to implement professional-quality restoration.

While the water problems California faces are complex, here are three clear principles we can follow to guide how we manage water through the 21st century:

  • Pursue nature-based solutions that use sound science to guide restoration and management.
  • Do robust multiple benefit planning, implementation, and monitoring to minimize conflict between different interests.
  • Involve community groups at every stage of the process. Underserved communities have historically borne the brunt of poor environmental management and we must break that cycle.

Looking for solutions at the intersection of climate change, biodiversity loss, and water management can feel overwhelming, yet there is reason to be hopeful. California has a long history of environmental leadership, and its bold commitment to conserve and restore 30% of its lands and waters by 2030 is just one sign of the state’s resolve. Now, it’s time to scale up the solutions we already see working, so that as water makes its way from the Sierra to the sea, it can provide the most benefit to all of our communities, human and non-human alike, along the way.